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We’ve all had to deal with misunderstandings over email or boredom during a conference call. While there are benefits to digital or remote communication, there are also many pitfalls. Author Nick Morgan outlines the problems inherent to connecting in a digital world, as well as methods that can improve human interaction, which in turn, can boost your results.

Virtual communication is fast, practical, and, most of all, inescapable in today’s work environment. If you work for a multinational company, it’s hard to avoid that weekly conference call, during which everyone mutes their phones and does other things while pretending to listen in. That boredom is due to the isolation that is inherent to virtual communication, with its lack of sensory and emotional cues. The human brain was de- signed to resolve issues of survival in person, in unstable conditions and in near-constant motion. None of those conditions apply to a conference call. Morgan argues that we must learn to communicate differently in this brave new digital world. “We need to begin to consciously add the emotional subtext back into virtual communications to avoid the costs — personal and financial — associated with miscommunication.”

Can you hear me? Five big problems in virtual communication

Morgan groups virtual communication problems into five major categories.

Lack of feedback. Humans have evolved by constantly scanning the environment for information that could help us predict danger or home in on potential prey. We use our five senses, as well as our unconscious minds, to track any changes around us. The virtual world deprives us of this sensory feedback. “Thus we find the virtual world repetitive, confusing, and tension-filled,” Morgan writes.

Lack of empathy. With so few sensory cues, we get little information about other people’s emotions, which means that our normal levels of empathy are inaccurate, and we fill in the blanks with anxiety. An example: someone doesn’t answer an email, and we imagine that they must be angry. This also explains why the virtual world seems less interesting to us: in the real world, emotions are what keep us engaged. As a result, people’s attention spans are shorter in the virtual world, perhaps as little as 10 minutes.

Lack of control. Morgan notes, “In the real world, people forget and forgive.” In the virtual one, however, “all those embarrassing photos from your wild college parties are still out there.” You have a disturbingly limited control over your digital persona.

Lack of emotion. The human mind constantly assesses its surroundings and the people
in its environment. Deprived of emotional subtext, we find it difficult to make decisions. Does the silence during a conference call mean that everyone is in awe of what you just said or completely tuned out?

Lack of connection and commitment. Real connection is based on emotion. Missing the emotion that occurs when people meet face to face, virtual networks have us chasing “the junk food of connection” — likes, clicks, Retweets — which give us a quick thrill but not the satisfaction of a hug. Therefore, online trust is fragile, trolling is rampant and the online world can be a minefield.

Make a conscious effort: consciously reinserting unconscious clues

Excerpt from Business Digest N°293, February 2019

To go further

Read the full 3-part feature

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Communication across the digital divide

Interview with Keith Liu

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